Their first love, how parenthood changed them, their biggest regret …. This is the stuff of life. Will your parents be willing to open up about these topics? You bet.
They won't be expecting the question; it may have never been asked of them before. But when you care enough to ask, I've found that you're almost always met with a heartfelt reply.
One of my favorite requests to throw out during an interview is, "Tell me about your first big crush."
Inevitably, the eyebrows go up, a moment of silence ensues, and then a smile breaks out from ear to ear as they look up and off into a time of life long past. And the most wonderful story of young love pours forth.
"I haven't thought of him/her for years," I often hear.
These are the kinds of questions that bring a life-story interview to life -- for everyone.
- What do you remember about falling in love with Grandpa/Grandma?
- What's the most trouble you ever got into as a young person?
- When you were 18 years old, what did you envision for your life?
- What was the toughest lesson that you had to learn?
- What has brought you happiness in life?
The stories of our lives are complex, filled with equal parts laughter and tears. So enough of the small talk … let's get to the good stuff while there's still time.
I've heard recently from a number of historical societies in my area enthusiastic about beginning an oral-history program in their communities. They all share the same concern - that the men and women who can bring the history of their town to life through the sharing of personal experience are aging rapidly.
Time is of the essence when it comes to capturing these personalities and their stories for current and future generations.
Thinking of starting a community oral-history program? Here are a few tips to get you started:
1. Determine your objective.
What do you hope to learn? What are the gaps in your "known history" that personal recollections can help fill?
2. Agree upon key subject categories.
What are the primary topics in your community history that you'd like to cover? Examples might be: the local lumbering industry, churches, schooling, farming, retail, etc.
3. Make your list.
Who do you want to talk with? There will be those in your community who will be of interest for several possible reasons: they're natives to the area, they've led exceptionally fascinating lives, they can shed some light on one or some of the categories chosen in Step 2.
4. Prioritize your list.
Who do you want to talk with FIRST? You will want to consider age, health, and availability.
5. Buy your equipment.
You will need a digital recorder and microphones, to start. There are some good resources to help you find the right equipment for your needs. Transom.org
is a good place to get started.
6. Find committed interviewers.
Who will be conducting the interviews? A group of 3-5 interviewers is ideal. Then you can divide and conquer, after everyone has agreed upon an interview protocol and process.
7. Agree upon a protocol and process!
There are a number of things that should be considered before stepping out into the field - how to present your program to the community, connecting/communicating with potential interviewees, the interview process, and archival procedures.
I offer a two-hour Interviewing Workshop designed specifically to help community oral-history programs get off the ground and running. If you're interested, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-371-9777. I'd love to help you begin this exciting process.
There is a lot of chatter amongst today's writers, PR gurus, and marketing experts about how the Web - particularly social media - is changing the way we communicate. And from a writer's standpoint, I can tell you that the "school of thought" on writing that I graduated from 15 years ago is no longer in session. Everything has changed.
I could write several pages on how the technicalities of writing are being redefined, or largely ignored, by our most prolific and talented communicators today --- for better or for worse, depending upon your view. But I won't.
What's most interesting to me is how the content has changed. Young people today have a very different definition of "private" than their parents and grandparents. Facebook and Twitter aside, those of us raised in the '60s and beyond have been encouraged to "share" and "open up" since grammar school.
And nowadays, with the social media taking hold, "sharing" has been taken to an entirely new level. We talk about our struggles, our fears, our loves, and our hopes with an audience of online friends, family, and yes - even strangers.
It's not just about where we're going on vacation, it's about what we're feeling and thinking. It's the photo of the empty apartment after a break-up and a simple post, "Another chapter closes …." that an acquaintance of mine recently posted on Facebook.
So how does this apply to personal history? Today's youth appears at ease revealing the more intimate details of their lives on a public stage. With the birth of online communications, we're sharing more things with more people than ever before.
A lot has changed since 1910. For those born in the earlier part of the last century, the lines between material fit for "polite dinner-table conversation" versus "a diary entry" are a little more clearly defined. There were certain things that you just didn't talk about …. especially in mixed company.
So the elders in your life may not think to initiate conversation about certain sentimental subjects, but it doesn't mean that they aren't willing to share.
The personal-history interview brings these topics to the forefront. It provides a comfortable stage for both asking and answering these seemingly awkward questions that we avoid -- even though we'd love to hear the answers. I've found that the elusive "privacy line" that we all dance around with the elders in our lives seems to soften dramatically when there is a genuine interest in what lies on the other side. The life-story interview seems to demonstrate just that.
Kids today are growing up in a multimedia world. Whether through a television show, online game, or YouTube video, the stories that resonate with them are more likely to involve sound and motion. For this younger generation, storytelling is participatory. It's about seeing, hearing, and interacting.
So it probably shouldn't surprise me that the headphones and CD player that I had out as part of my booth at the Vermont History Expo in June attracted an exclusive demographic of listeners …. By and large, they were 15 years and under.
And what surprised me most of all was not that they actually noticed the headsets that so many adults unwittingly walked by, but that they stood and listened for 3-5 minutes, obviously entertained by the audio snippets of life-story interviews that I had prepared.
Quite frankly, I think that they may have been relieved. Finally, a "play" button, a human voice, and a bit of music. They were engaged.
My kids, ages 4 and 7, and a great number of their friends, are really into audio books these days. Our 6-year-old neighbor listened to 20 hours of Harry Potter & The Goblet of Fire on a cross-country road trip. And they bought the next audio-book in the sequence before reaching their destination.
Whenever I complete a personal-history project, I do a quick "proof-listen" in the car before boxing it up and sending it off to my client. And my children never complain. They actually pick up on the stories that are being told and laugh right along with the storyteller - who, in these cases, is relating episodes from his or her life.
It's not the latest Harry Potter or Magic Treehouse edition, but it's equally as entertaining for them … And as their parent, I know that they're gaining such valuable insights by listening to these stories of growing up in the 1920s, '30s, and '40s -- trapping squirrels for spending money, selling veggies door-to-door to help mom and dad pay the bills, and making their own wooden skis for backyard ski-jumping.
Is a child more likely to "listen" to grandma and grandpa's life story than to read it? My experience at the Expo and with my own children tells me, "perhaps."